VTA has finally set a target date for a partial reopening of its light rail that could happen as soon as this weekend.
Officials confirmed Tuesday the transit agency is beginning test runs of its light rail service, marking the first time the trains have left the Guadalupe rail yard in almost three months. VTA hopes to have limited service back in time for Sunday’s NFL preseason game between the San Francisco 49ers and Las Vegas Raiders at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara.
They also stressed that only limited service will come back, and full service will resume at a future date.
“We’re hoping to have some level of service as soon as possible,” said Dale Austin Jenkins, director of rail operation. “We have to check and certify every element that will allow the safe operation (of light rail) to be performed. And that’s what’s going on right now.”
The light rail trains have sat idle in downtown San Jose since May 26 after a disgruntled VTA employee killed nine of his colleagues before taking his own life. Four of the nine workers who died in the May shooting, as well as the shooter himself, worked on substation maintenance at the rail yard. VTA officials say the shooting caused damage to buildings, equipment and computers necessary to the service.
VTA officials stress the trains are test runs, which will be operated by retrained and recertified drivers and operators with limited staff onboard. During these test runs, workers will ensure track equipment and overhead lines are safe enough to resume service. According to the transit agency, these trains will leave the Guadalupe rail yard, head up North First Street to the Baypointe Station in North San Jose and return back to the rail yard.
The return of service is welcome news for riders and transit advocates who are currently relying on VTA buses as a substitute for light rail, especially in neighborhoods where transit access is more difficult. Riders have also had to contend with ridership restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s really tough in a way. Think about if you’re a low-income person or homeless and your sole transportation is relying on public transportation, and suddenly it’s shut down,” MyLinh Pham, CEO of the Asian American Community Center of Santa Clara County and part of San Jose’s Transportation Equity Task Force, told San José Spotlight. “It’s like your two legs have been chopped off. Now that (light rail) is back, it’s good news. However, I’m hoping the light rail will also address issues of safety, especially with the Delta variant going around right now.”
Public riders will not be allowed to board the test run trains. VTA warns residents—who have not seen the tracks used in three months—that trains will be “live” and lines will be in use.
“Safety is our top priority here,” said Carolyn Gonot, general manager and chief executive officer of VTA. “Not having trains running for the past three months might have led bicyclists, pedestrians and motorists to let their guard down around the system… Please stop, look and listen for any activity.”
Light rail service was originally supposed to resume at the end of July, but the agency pushed back its deadline to mid-August.
The three-line light rail system spans more than 40 miles across the South Bay, connecting residents along the peninsula from Mountain View to San Jose. The network served approximately 30,000 daily riders before the pandemic and 7,600 daily riders this past year, according to VTA’s data.
The Guadalupe rail yard has served as the nerve center for VTA’s transit network since 1978 and is home to all light rail equipment and maintenance services. VTA bus operations moved to a temporary location following the mass shooting in May.
VTA now runs a bus bridge service along First Street in San Jose as a substitute for light rail. Buses run from the Paseo de San Antonio Station to Baypointe Station, then over to the Milpitas Transit Center along Tasman Drive.
Gonot praised the hard work of employees who are training and attending mental health groups as the light rail returns to service.
“They are heroes, they are survivors who are dealing with the kind of grief most people will never know,” Gonot said. “They have chosen to come back to their jobs to serve their community.”